Reading Tony’s memory of Roy Hattersley’s history lesson took me back to a conversation with my late father-in-law after one of those fly-on-the-wall teaching shows late last century. I think it was in the early days of naming and shaming and may well have been about The Ridings, billed at the time as ‘Britain’s Worst School’ (which must have been helpful for precisely nobody involved it). He thought the teacher was too polite to the children and showed weakness by saying please and thank you so we had a bit of a discussion on the matter. I’m musing therefore on language, school, good manners and the passage of time.
I’m not the politest person on the planet, as my nearest and dearest attest. I adore being around people with lovely manners and make many resolutions to learn from it. I’m OK in formal mode, but as soon as the guard goes down I’m all about the smart remark so I’m forever apologising. That being said, I do expect roadworthy manners from children and am a stickler for the pleases, thank yous and sorrys that oil social wheels. What I can’t do, try as I might, is to enforce (or even consider) the kind of insistence on modes of speech that make every transaction seem like theatre.
Let me explain. It is undoubtedly the case that school is school, bus is bus, street is something else and home has a language of its own. All of us need familiarity with many argots to prevent us looking like nitwits, pace the apocryphal story of Peter Mandelson assuming mushy peas were guacamole in a Hartlepool chip-shop. But those languages should be linked and authentic. It’s not the surface or the accent that matters, it’s the content, the precision and the actual communication.
Good manners and accessible language are kindness in action. Being clear, available and engaged with your listener shows you respect their humanity. Please and thank you are never out of place no matter how annoying the furious teenage interlocutor. We have to set an example.
However, manners are used too often for division in this class-ridden society. Codes of behaviour in the in-group are designed to create an out-group and schools should have no truck with this. Requiring children to remember a complicated set of verbal rules, rather than guiding them with a few civilising principles, will lead to exclusion both metaphorically and actually. Interpreting, discussing, re-forming and re-shaping language so that communication is clear and easy is a kindness, especially when it helps a youth learn the norms of the good life. A school’s commitment to kindness is evidenced in the language it speaks: unpretentious, welcoming, honest and hopeful.
This Tallis 50 archive might last for centuries and I wonder how our language will communicate with the future. There’s been an interesting example in the system just this last year or so: the case of Kate Clanchy. Her book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a memoir of a 30-year teaching career, first won the Orwell prize and then was cast into outer darkness when offence at some of her language surfaced. The gap between acceptable and unacceptable appeared like a chasm following an earthquake, shaking everyone involved, seemingly overnight.
I’m interested in this. I’d been a bit envious of Clanchy’s success as I’ve had a book on a back burner for a bit, but can’t quite get it into a publishable state. I can’t do a The Secret Lawyer or This is Going to Hurt, no matter my natural facility for the flip, the glib and the downright sarcastic. Why? First: even serial headteachers like me stay in one place for a bit so subjects of my memoirs, no matter how anonymised, would be recognisable. Second: no civilised society should accept the ridicule of children or their use for personal gain. I’m not saying this is what Clanchy did or intended. I’m observing that linguistic manners and social expectations suddenly changed and what was tolerable one year was intolerable by the next for perfectly acceptable reasons. Read afresh, it looked brutal.
That’s why the complaints of the present about snowflakes and cancel culture and well-you-can’t-say-anything-these-days are so misguided. Language changes, and the discipline of kindness requires critique, review, reconsideration and redrafting. Good manners are kindness in action and they are based on care for the dignity of the human beings around us. They are always expressed in kind language.
A thousand years ago when I was clawing my way up the greasy pole I was summoned to a classroom for purposes of behaviour support. Old-school in every possible way, the colleague therein presented me with an unrepentant urchin who couldn’t be bothered with poetry that morning. I extracted him, but further assistance was sought. ‘While you’re here, take away that fat girl in the corner who won’t stop crying.’ Such language, theoretically acceptable when the colleague was trained, had rightly become reprehensible even by then and would lead to disciplinary proceedings for a teacher now. In the same way that we belatedly understand what fossil fuels have done to the planet, we have finally started to grasp the desperate power of language to separate, to undermine, to distance and to wound. And if that’s how adults feel, imagine what it does to children.
Kindness is a discipline in itself. The other kind of discipline expresses kindness. My father-in-law was wrong: please and thank you are the very foundations of the very best behaviour.